The aircraft carrier came of age in World War 2 (1939-1945) and supplanted the battleship as the primary capital ship of the world's navies. The ship type was used to excellent effect by the Allies in the re-taking of the Pacific from the Empire of Japan and remained a prominent fixture of naval warfare in the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953) and Vietnam War (1955-1975). The British Royal Navy of World War 2 fielded an impressive collection of aircraft-carrying warships and one of the more specialized vessels was the HMS Unicorn (I72).
HMS Unicorn was developed around the concept of a light carrier and used as a maintenance carrier in support of fleet ships. Light carriers were constructed to smaller dimensions than their larger sisters and carried half or less the aircraft. They did feature exceptional speed for their size, could be constructed at a fraction of the cost and were deployable on long voyages in deep water while also serving as fleet defenders and convoy escorts.
As built, HMS Unicorn displaced 16,770 tons under standard load and up to 20,600 tons under full load. Her length was 640 feet with a beam of over 90 feet and a draught reaching 23 feet. Power was from 4 x Admiralty water-tube boilers feeding 2 x Parsons geared steam turbines driving 40,000 horsepower to 2 x shafts under stern. Her crew complement numbered 1,200 under wartime conditions and armor ranged from 2" along the flight deck to 1.5" at the bulkheads. The vessel could carry about 33 aircraft of various makes and models. The Type 281B fit made up her early warning radar system and a pair of Type 285 systems were fitted as gunnery radars.
Fitted armament, intended mainly for self-defense or cover of other ships from air attack, included 4x2 QF 4" Mk XVI Dual-Purpose (DP) guns, 4x4 2-pounder Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns, 2x2 20mm Oerlikon AA guns and 8x1 20mm Oerlikon AA guns.
HMS Unicorn was ordered on April 14th, 1939 as part of the Royal Navy's 1938 Naval Expansion Programme with the intent that she serve primarily as a depot / maintenance vessel. However, while still under construction, she was reworked to launch and retrieve aircraft to broaden her strategic value considerably all the while retaining her fleet maintenance/support-minded capabilities. She was launched on November 20th, 1941 as Britain was fully committed to World War 2. Completed in March of 1943, Unicorn began her career in Mediterranean waters and participated in the Allied amphibious landings at Salerno, Italy in September. From there she undertook actions in the Atlantic Ocean before relocating to Indian waters as part of the Eastern Fleet.
The warship served alongside fleet carriers and became a part of the British Pacific Fleet after November 1944. In May of 1945 she served in the Okinawa invasion and conducted supply runs from the Philippines and Admiralty Islands. The war ended in August of 1945 with the Japanese surrender. This led Unicorn to be decommissioned for the first time in January of 1946 at which point she was placed in reserve in British waters.
To support operations by the Far East Fleet, HMS Unicorn was recommissioned in 1949 and was stationed in Singapore during June of 1950 when war between the Koreas was declared. From then on, the warship was part of the critical operations to unseat the invaders by conducting supply runs (manpower, spare parts, aircraft) for Commonwealth forces. The British contingent included five light carriers and no fewer than thirteen naval air squadrons for its part in the bloody affair. Her guns were also used in anger at one point when she shelled North Korean elements along the coastline. At the end of the war she returned to British home waters and was set in reserve once again, decommissioned for a second time on November 17th, 1953. Her stripped hulk was scrapped in 1959 bringing about her formal end.
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